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MOVIES Gay director Rodney Evans on his 'Happy Sad' tale
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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As awards season arrives, several of the top contenders are from African-American directors—including Steve McQueen's unvarnished triumph 12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and Ryan Coogler's powerful debut Fruitvale Station.

Last year also saw the return of another tremendously talented African-American director—the openly gay Rodney Evans, who returned to cinemas nine years after his critically lauded debut, Brother to Brother, in 2004. Evans' movie, The Happy Sad, hasn't gotten the attention of these other high profile releases but in its exploration of modern-day relationship and gender boundaries, it's very refreshing from a voice that has long been missed. It's now available for download on iTunes, Amazon Instant, and other download sites and a DVD release will follow shortly.

Vibrant and unabashedly sexy, The Happy Sad is based on a play by Ken Urban, who worked closely with Evans in adapting the work for the screen. The film is a chamber quartet focusing on two couples in Brooklyn—Marcus and Aaron, a Black gay couple, and Stan and Annie, a white straight couple—whose lives intersect when both decide to open their relationships sexually. The material explores, in very interesting ways, what can happen when both traditional relationship boundaries and gender lines—Marcus and Stan hook up repeatedly and Annie is drawn to her newly out girlfriend—are blurred. Evans, who lives in Brooklyn, was in Chicago last fall when The Happy Sad had its Chicago premiere to a very receptive audience during the Reeling LGBT Film Festival. Windy City Times recently caught up with Evans to discuss the film and what's next for the writer-director.

Windy City Times: One of the reasons I loved Brother to Brother so much is that it explored so many things you don't normally see in films—things like interracial gay relationships and the importance of the Harlem Renaissance—and that's the experience that I had with The Happy Sad as well. That's why it's good you're back! From the very first shot of seeing a Black, gay couple in love on a park bench—I mean, when do you see that in a film?

Rodney Evans: I know, it's still exceedingly rare. It's good to hear that people want to see more from me, I'm trying to pick up the pace a little bit. Hopefully there won't be a nine year gap before the next one ( laughs ).

WCT: Hopefully! I love that the piece blurs all these boundaries—gender, monogamy, race—it questions all these things. In particular, the idea that you don't need to declare yourself sexually. The movie says, "You don't need to do that."

RE: It's interesting to gauge different reactions to that. Part of what was really interesting to me about it was the idea of turning those assumptions on their heads. You have Annie, who is this experimental, progressive, liberal woman who is so disconcerted by the idea of her boyfriend bottoming [laughing] that you see the shock register on her face. I'm interested in when those boundaries get thrown for a loop and what are the things that are still shocking or provocative for people that consider themselves to be liberal and progressive and experimental?

WCT: That theme actually seems to harken back to aspects of Brother to Brother—the idea of breaking down boundaries. Were you conscious of that link while working on The Happy Sad?

RE: I do see parallels in terms of the experimentation and in terms of some of the more radical trailblazers of the Harlem Renaissance depicted in Brother to Brother like Richard Bruce Nugent who was a huge risk taker and his whole M.O. was about embracing risk and being a provocateur. He had all these stories about sleeping with straight Italian gangsters for example.

WCT: Another thing that maybe links the two films is the frustration with the status quo which I'm going to guess is something that certainly any independent filmmaker probably feels. Certainly as a gay, Black filmmaker, that probably resonates with you.

RE: Oh, yeah—absolutely. My interest in the outsider and people that are interested in transgressing and questioning mainstream "norms"—I think that interest goes hand in hand with my sense of myself as an independent filmmaker and someone who goes against the grain and someone who wants to embrace risk in terms of the stories that I'm bringing to the screen and in terms of having different experiences portrayed that are still extremely rare. Those two things definitely go hand in hand.

WCT: And there are still such pejoratives about making a gay movie by the mainstream—whether you declare it as being gay-themed or not. It's like the kiss of death in trying to get mainstream funding and audiences. What's got to be frustrating is that even if you get the movie made—through crowd funding sites, or friends, or charging up your credit cards or whatever—you still have to go out there and try to sell the movie—it's a whole other kettle of fish.

RE: It is another whole kettle of fish. I feel comfortable at this point wearing the hat of the producer, the distributor, the marketer, the person who is really spearheading the distributor of the film. I think that's a sign of the times. For a filmmaker it's what you have to do to survive and to sustain a career. The days of going to Sundance and hoping for a bidding war among distributors; those days don't really exist anymore and most of those companies don't really exist. It's just part of the skill set that a filmmaker has to have.

WCT: It's what musicians have had to deal with forever. And talking about music—that was hugely important to Brother to Brother and is also a big part of The Happy Sad ( one of the characters is a songwriter in a band that appears in the film ). I found those aspects of the film very Altmanesque.

RE: Thank you—I'll take that!

WCT: And you're now hard at work on getting Daydream—your film about Billy Strayhorn, the gay jazz icon—made. Can't wait for that...

RE: I'm pushin' and hopefully we'll meet up again in a few years. Thank you to Chicago for supporting The Happy Sad. .

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